Rip currents – the greatest beach hazard

With summer barely begun and two teenagers already lost in the surf of local beaches, the greatest tragedy is how easily lives could be saved, if more people understood rip currents.

Often mistakenly called “riptide” or “undertow,” rip currents, on average, kill more Americans each year than tornadoes, earthquakes or hurricanes, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association.

What people need to know is how easy it is to escape these flows – lifeguards and experienced surfers sometimes use rip currents to get past the breakers, according to authorities.

There’s no such thing as “undertow,” according to the National Weather Service. The water doesn’t pull you under – it pulls you away from shore. And they aren’t tides; rip currents can happen whenever there are waves, even in the Great Lakes.

When wind and wave action “piles up” water close to shore, at some spot the beach bottom makes an easier path for the water to flow back out – in a narrow, rapid current.

In almost every case, these currents are no wider than a narrow side street (from 10 to 30 feet wide), and although they flow very fast, they don’t go very far, usually just past where the waves start to break (100 to 300 feet from shore).

A few feet to the left or right, the ocean flow is normal, and wave action helps bring bathers closer to shore. Try to swim against the current and you will fail – “Swim to the side!” or along the beach, experts say

Rip currents often form alongside structures like Rockaway’s jetties – where inexperienced bathers think they are “protected,” and a 14-year-old was swept away recently.

While it is often hard to tell where a rip current is happening, they can often be observed as a dark stripe between two areas of surf, or what looks like a cloudy channel going out to sea (from churned up sand).

The easiest way to avoid rip currents is to ask a lifeguard if there are any rips.

If you aren’t a good swimmer, you should stay closer to the lifeguards – and if there isn’t a lifeguard on duty, it’s illegal and dangerous to go into the ocean.

Rip currents can go faster than the fastest Olympic swimmer and can sweep you off your feet if you are standing in water only up to your knees.


Ask the lifeguard about rip currents – no lifeguard, no wading.

Stay calm. Panic-caused fatigue kills more swimmers than anything else.

You can’t out-swim a rip current but you can swim out of one – swim along the beach to get out of the current.